First, the good news: this DVD release of the restored version of “Help!” is a visual treat. The 1965 Beatles film never looked so good – the colors have more vibrancy than I can recall from any previous video release (let alone television broadcast). There is also a bonus disc full of goodies, including interviews with director Richard Lester on the making of the film plus an interesting examination of a deleted and presumably lost scene that involved the Beatles in an acting school run by legendary British funnyman Frankie Howerd.
Now, the bad news: we’re still talking about “Help!”, which is arguably the least interesting of the Beatles’ five feature films. After the unexpected joy of “A Hard Day’s Night,” it appeared the Beatles would be able to produce what Elvis Presley and other rockers failed to achieve: the perfect linkage of popular music with cinematic style. Alas, the Fab Four and Richard Lester were unable to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time – the seeming spontaneity and casual charm of “A Hard Day’s Night” were jettisoned in favor of a frenzied, almost rabid slapstick farce that constantly mistook silliness for comedy without tapping into the Beatles’ natural sense of humor or comic talents.
It might be easy to blame the now-legendary off-screen marijuana usage for the Beatles’ conspicuously sluggish performances (Paul, in particular, seems completely detached from the surroundings). But most likely, the Beatles objected to what John Lennon ultimately described as being extras in their own film. Whereas “A Hard Day’s Night” focused on the Beatles, “Help!” is a lame James Bond spoof full of absurd non-sequitur gags ripping on everything and anything unrelated to the Beatles’ world.
Even worse, the repetition of the humor becomes exasperating – “Help!” is basically five sight gags played over and over in unimaginative variations. Halfway through, the film literally runs out of steam and the second half of “Help!” (especially the dismally dull Bahamas scenes) can only be tolerated by the most rabid of Beatles addicts.
The Beatles only come alive in the musical sequences, where the contrived dialogue and lame knockabout gets a rest in favor of the peerless Beatles song line-up. When playfully improvising Alpine skiing expertise for the “Ticket to Ride” sequence or trying to keep a straight face while incongruously performing amidst Royal Army tanks at a Salisbury Plain encirclement, the Beatles can only be themselves when the frenetic “Help!” plot halts in favor of a musical interlude.
Beatles fans have always been too kind in overlooking the film’s obvious flaws, even though the Beatles themselves were not shy about badmouthing its failings. If anything, the polished-up DVD restoration will make “Help!” look better – it just won’t actually make it a better film.